When making sense of politicians, their silence is often more revealing than their talking points. That has been the case with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Her trip to India was marked by what was nearly inaudible: the “K-word,” or Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
In the lead-up to her visit, commentators chattered about how she would bully India over J&K to ease tensions with Pakistan. But when Clinton did bring up security, it was in the context of 26/11 or terrorism generally, with a broad brushstroke.
Indeed, the recap of her visit reads much differently. She spoke of climate change and unfurled an end-use military agreement with India—as well as plans for US-backed nuclear power plants on Indian soil. And she extended Prime Minister Manmohan Singh an invite to the White House, US President Barack Obama’s first formal invitation to a head of government.
Yet J&K did not go unnoticed, and was a kind of background hum throughout her stopover. US newspapers such as The New York Times crowed about the need to resolve the J&K conflict in the context of her delegation. Opposition leader L.K. Advani told Clinton on Monday that the US should refrain from pressuring India into resuming talks with Pakistan over J&K.
The Obama administration appears to be sensitive in bringing up the K-word. Obama apparently excised India from US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s mandate over South Asia to refrain from angering New Delhi on the matter.
There are two issues at work here: First, it is doubtful that Obama understands the geopolitical importance of India fully. The country is an oasis of stability in a chaotic region that has been hostile to democracy. But at the moment, Pakistan matters more to Obama. So even if India is being ignored, it looms large in the background.
Second, the US cannot ignore India for business reasons. India is soon to award a giant contract for 126 fighter aircraft. Then there is nuclear commerce: reactors, fuel and technology contracts are at stake. The US is already disadvantaged against France and Russia. If it makes noises about J&K, it will only harm itself more.
It’s unlikely that Clinton’s no-mention of J&K is part of a larger ideological shift in US foreign policy. But it signals the US’ acknowledgement that meddling in the matter will only alienate India—an ally it crucially needs.
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